Analytics & TestingSocial Media & Influencer Marketing

We Should Stop Saying Influential When We Mean Popular

I saw it again today… another Influencer List. I couldn’t get through the entire list, though, because I was too busy raking my nails down my face and pulling my hair out. It wasn’t an influencer list at all, it was just another popularity list. To be certain that we all understand the difference, let’s go ahead and define the two:

  • Popular: Liked, admired, or enjoyed by many people or by a particular person or group.
  • Influential: Having a great influence on someone or something.

For you marketers out there, there’s a huge distinction between the two. It’s eyeballs versus intent. If you want a lot of people to see your stuff… go for popularity. But if you want a lot of people to buy your stuff… go for influence. Popular people or brands have a lot of people that like them. Influential people or brands have people who trust them.


Still don’t get it? One of 2012’s most popular moms was Nicole Snooki Polizzi. On Twitter, Snooki has 6.1 million followers. Snooki’s topics include photography, pizza, baking, the military, and shoes. Snooki’s name is also synonymous with motherhood this year on many lists.

No doubt Snooki is popular. But whether or not she’s influential on these topics is arguable. People may look to Snooki for the latest in shoe styles since she’s a pop icon… but it’s doubtful she’s going to help to influence your opinion on your next camera purchase, pizza purchase, armed force question, baking recipe, or parenting question. I’m not knocking Snooki… just pointing out that Snooki is absolutely popular, but has questionable influence.

The problem is these influence scores and lists are not really influential at all. Listing Snooki as an influencer just isn’t accurate. If I want an opinion on photography, I’m going to seek out Paul D’Andrea. Pizza? I’m going to my friend James who owns Brozinni’s. Baking? My Mom.

You get the point. But do you notice something about my influencers? They’re not famous and don’t have millions of followers or fans. They’re trusted because I have built a personal relationship with each of them over time and they earned my trust. I’m not discounting that popular people can be influential… plenty are. However, I am discounting that to be influential, one must be popular. That’s not the case.

As a personal example, I know that I’ve become influential in the marketing technology space. I’ve consulted on over $4 billion worth of acquisitions and investments in the last few years and provided some great direction for many companies. That said, I’m not popular in the space. You won’t find me in the top 10 of too many lists and I’m not headlining events in social media and marketing. I believe, if the lists were written based on industry leadership and trust, I’d find myself ranked much higher. That’s not a complaint… just an observation.

We do need to find a way to better distinguish between influence and popularity, though. Marketers need to identify influencers and invest with influencers to help share their products and services. However, marketers must also avoid wasting money on those that are simply popular and don’t influence anything.

Douglas Karr

Douglas Karr is the founder of the Martech Zone and a recognized expert on digital transformation. Douglas has helped start several successful MarTech startups, has assisted in the due diligence of over $5 bil in Martech acquisitions and investments, and continues to launch his own platforms and services. He's a co-founder of Highbridge, a digital transformation consulting firm. Douglas is also a published author of a Dummie's guide and a business leadership book.

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  1. I think we need a third category beyond “popular” and “influential” which is merely “visible.” I wouldn’t argue that Snooki is all that popular (“like, admired or enjoyed”) as much as she is simply highly visible.

    Thanks for sharing, though, Doug!

  2. Douglas, as you’ve seen, we at Little Bird believe that popularity among niche topic specialists is a good proxy in the direction of influence, expertise, etc. How well does that do in your opinion as a better way to measure influence?

    1. Hi @marshallkirkpatrick:disqus ! Little Bird does such a great job at providing different dimensions of a given topic that we’re able to identify the influencers. Even within a niche there are hazards in looking at popularity only. I wonder if there are actions such as retweets, additional sharing, etc. that uncover the ability for a person to influence another to take action. Given two twitter accounts – one with many followers and one with a few followers but more retweets – I would focus on the latter.

      1. Douglass, thanks for writing this. But now I’ve GOT to ask what this means: “Little Bird does such a great job at providing different dimensions of a
        given topic that we’re able to identify the influencers.”

        I’m a Little Bird beta participant but I simply don’t see this being a beneficial tool for me. Obviously I’m missing something and that something is what you’re getting at in this comment. Will you please consider being more specific? Thanks so much.

        1. Hi @google-8dffa4a27cb92d8c652480f605a5a5bb:disqus – with Little Bird, I like the fact that activity is one of the filters and that I can compare activity, listening, and the topic leaders against the most followed column. It’s not producing an instantaneous list of influencers, but it enables me to bounce back and forth and do a bit more analysis of the accounts.

          Truth be told, tools like this weren’t the motivation for writing this post. It was all the nonsensical Top Influencer lists for 2012 that motivated me. I’m appreciative of tools like Klout, Appinions, and Little Bird – who are trying to formulate the algorithms to provide better results. It’s quite a complex problem!

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